South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have developed a software fix that is intended to stop a recent social-media-fueled theft wave. Over the past few years, thousands of Hyundai and Kia vehicles have been stolen as videos demonstrating how easy certain models were to start without a key spread on YouTube and TikTok. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the fix will be available free of charge and will roll out over the coming months.
Most modern cars are fitted with an immobilizer system that prevents them from being hot wired or started without the correct key. A chip in the key communicates with the electronic control unit (ECU) in the car’s engine. When the driver attempts to start the car, either by turning the key or pushing a button, the chip sends a signal confirming that they are using the right key for the car, and the ECU allows the engine to start. If a thief tries to start a car without the correct key—say, using a screwdriver—then the ECU doesn’t receive the signal and prevents the vehicle from turning on. While immobilizers won’t stop dedicated, technologically advanced thieves, they make it much harder for opportunists.
Unfortunately for car owners, the Hyundai and Kia models targeted in the recent thefts don’t have an immobilizer. The simple chip system in the key can be bypassed by connecting a USB phone charger to a specific circuit accessible in the steering column, and the car can then be started with a screwdriver.
According to a report by CNBC last year, police around the country have noted a sharp spike in TikTok-inspired thefts. The fallout was bad enough that multiple cities have pursued legal action against the two Korean automakers. There’s also a class action lawsuit, and some insurance companies are refusing to cover the impacted models. NHTSA claims that there have been at least 14 crashes and eight deaths.
According to NHTSA, the software fix will roll out to the approximately 3.8 million affected Hyundais and 4.5 million affected Kias in a number of phases starting later this month. The specific models aren’t being widely publicized for somewhat obvious reasons, but they are mostly the more affordable ones that use a mechanical key rather than a fob and push-button. If you want to learn more about your vehicle, NHTSA recommends contacting Hyundai (800-633-5151) or Kia (800-333-4542) for more information.
The update makes two changes to the theft alarm software in the cars. It increases the length of time the alarm sounds from 30 seconds to one minute and also prevents the car from starting if the key isn’t in the ignition.
This isn’t the first time that a software update has been used to add anti-theft features to a line of cars. Back in 2021, Dodge rolled out an update to its high horsepower Charger and Challenger models that were apparently being targeted by key-spoofing thieves. While already fitted with an immobilizer, the update added an additional layer of protection that limited the engines to just three horsepower if the correct pin wasn’t entered.
As well as the software update, affected Hyundai and Kia customers will receive a window sticker to alert would-be thieves that the vehicle has the anti-theft measures installed. While it won’t add any extra security, it might stop some thieves before they break a car window.
In a more old school fix, Hyundai and Kia have also been working with law enforcement agencies to provide more than 26,000 steering wheel locks to affected vehicle owners. The steering wheel locks have been sent to 77 agencies in 12 states. The Department of Transportation’s NHTSA suggests contacting local law enforcement to see if one is available if you own an affected car.